How does the narrator’s point of view affect the story?
John Updike’s famous short story “A & P”, first published in 1961, remains a much-anthologized story. Updike chooses as his protagonist and first-person narrator Sammy, who works as a check-out clerk at his small town’s A & P store. By narrating events from Sammy’s point of view and characterizing Sammy as he does, Updike makes the events in the story credible and justified to the reader. Therefore, the choice of Sammy’s point of view affects not only the story itself and what happens in it, but it also has a profound effect on our response as readers.
Updike characterizes Sammy in the opening two paragraphs as a young man from a blue collar background who finds his job frustrating. He uses lots of slang: he notices a girl with a “sweet broad soft-looking can”; when he charges a customer twice she “starts giving me hell”; he describes the customer as “one of these cash-register-watchers” and a “witch” (343). He also makes sardonic remarks about the same middle-aged woman, saying that his error probably “made her day” and that “She’d been watching registers forty years and probably never seen a mistake before” (343), suggesting the woman’s narrow and limited life. He also amusingly suggests that “if she’d been born at the right time they would have burned her over in Salem” (343). Later in the story he makes similarly sardonic remarks about his fellow town dwellers (the town is only five miles from the sea): “there’s people in this town who haven’t seen the ocean for twenty years” (350). These sardonic remarks, together with the events of the story and Sammy’s reaction to them, create reader empathy with Sammy and, by the end of the story, complete sympathy for Sammy. Far from being an unreliable narrator, Updike creates through Sammy’s words and his reactions to events, a completely reliable and likeable narrator.
The events of the story revolve around the entry into the A & P of three very attractive young women who are dressed for the beach. Sammy describes them in detail and with obvious relish and enjoyment. His attraction to them is not merely physical; when he hears them speak, he realizes that they come from a wealthier background than he does. Even this is made humorous by Updike: Sammy has this vision of the most attractive girl’s home life might be like:
Her father and the other men were standing around in ice-cream coats and bow ties and the women were in sandals picking up herring snacks on toothpicks off a big plate and they were all holding drinks the color of water with olives and sprigs of mint in them. (351 - 352)
Sammy does not envy her social status and wealth, but it makes him aware of his own lack of prospects in life. He amusingly describes with wry self-deprecation a social gathering at his own parents’ home:
When my parents have somebody over they get lemonade and if it’s a real racy affair Schlitz in tall glasses with “They’ll Do It Every Time” cartoons stencilled on. (352)
Mentally Sammy re-christens the most beautiful girl as “Queenie”. Werlock (1) writes:
Sammy also admires Queenie’s confident carriage – which, in quitting, perhaps he attempts to emulate – as well as her social status. Queenie embodies a socioeconomic realm to which Sammy, the son of working class parents, desires access.
Sammy, established by Updike on the first page of the story as unhappy at work, is now confronted with members of a higher class which he will never be a part of.
Three events occur in the story which lead to its conclusion. Because the girls are dressed for the beach, they cause a stir among the narrow-minded shoppers from the town. Even Sammy and his fellow worker, Stokesie, speak about the girls admiringly, but not in the girls’ hearing. Sammy starts to get angry and defensive towards the girls when “old McMahon” starts leering at the girls, “patting his mouth and looking after them and sizing up their joints. Poor kids, I began to feel sorry for them, they couldn’t help it” (351). Then when the girls are at the check out, they are approached by the store manager, Lengel, who openly rebukes them for the way they are dressed and asks them to leave. Sammy, in a show of solidarity with the girls, immediately quits and walks out of the A &P.
Why, then, does Sammy leave his job at the A & P in such a dramatic fashion? One critic, Werlock, explains it in this way:
Sammy’s quitting may be motivated by a combination of lust, admiration of Queenie's social status and sentimental romanticism, but his gesture does not lack principle and quickly assumes more serious overtones. (1)
It assumes more serious overtones because of the lack of jobs in the town where he lives, and at the end of the story, Sammy fears having to tell his mother and father that he has quit his job. However, Updike has prepared us for Sammy’s walking out by establishing early on in the story, Sammy’s frustration at work and his critical, sardonic attitude towards the normal shoppers. Updike also uses Sammy’s point of view and language to present Lengel, the manager, as an unpleasant, petty and arrogant man. We cannot predict the events of the story in detail, but his quitting is credible because of Updike’s characterization of him. Our sympathy as readers is increased by Sammy’s own reaction to what he has done: “my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter” (354). Sammy evokes our sympathy because he quits because Lengel is so unpleasant and nasty to the girls – a clear point of principle. Peltier (36) remarks on the retrospective irony of the story, set in 1961, on the cusp of the 1960s counter-cultural revolution, when many social attitudes changed – the story foreshadows those changes.
Therefore, Updike’s choice of Sammy as the first-person narrator of “A & P” and Updike’s characterization of him through what he says, how he reacts, and what he does affects the outcome of the story immeasurably. As soon as Lengel starts to criticize the girls, it is inevitable that Sammy (as constructed by Updike) will quit.
Peltier, Robert. "A & P: Presaging the Youthful Rebellion of the 1960s." Pages 32 – 41 in (ed) Napierkowski, Marie Rose. Short Stories for Students. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale, 1998. Print.
Updike, John. “A & P”. Pages 348 -354 in (ed.) 40 Short Stories: A Portable Anthology. London: St. Martin’s Press, 2012. Print.
Werlock, James P. (2010). The Facts on File: Companion to the American Short Story, Volume Two. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2010. Print.